Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Rare Books 1: Ursuline Donations

Rare book cataloguing is being done behind closed doors at the Library in this new world of isolation, also at home online. Here are three works from the library of the Ursuline Order, a vast donation received by the Carmelites when the sisters closed their house in Armidale, New England. A history of the order by Georg Adam Mayer (Würzburg, 1692) Notes: The book lacks a title page and colophon, so the way I ultimately found the author’s name was by locating an identical scanned record in the Bavarian State Library catalogue online. Georg Adam Mayer is probably the yet to be authorised ‘Mayer, Georg, active 16th century’ listed in Library of Congress Name Headings, i.e. no one quite knows who he is. The scan confirms that this is the one and only edition, most happily via the frontispiece depicting their patron Saint Ursula, active 4th century. A life of Bernard Overberg, by Caspar Franz Krabbe (Münster, 1846) Notes: Overberg was a German Catholic educationalist whose work would have had a large influence on the Ursulines who came to Australia. The Order is dedicated to the teaching of girls, so the nuns brought with them teacher training that they could put into effect, unlike other Australian women outside the walls of convent schools. Stories of Christoph von Schmid (1768-1854), another educator but also writer of children’s books of a pietistic and edifying nature (Augsburg, 1861). Notes: Well-worn, with cover fallen off, in need of repair. The German Ursulines who helped set up in Armidale were refugees from the Kulturkampf. They transferred to their house in Greenwich, England, where decisions were made to send them to Australia. We try to imagine these German women arriving in a far foreign land, bashing through the bush to establish schools and homes, armed with breviaries, missals, Mayer, Krabbe, and Schmid.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-third: Video Vacations


The Middle Kingdom builds more stately pleasure domes than heretofore, tiers and terraces of books in sunny spaces reaching for the sky. Tianjin is an optical illusion in this regard as we cannot tell if engineers are reaching for the dizzy limits or it’s all a split-level design masterpiece. Readers pace the levels, the cool white niceties of the post-nineties. Every month or so someone posts films of Most Beautiful Libraries of the World. Once again we are transported to the most beautiful that time decreed. The champagne music transports us in seconds to the Lello in Portugal. These spiral ceilings and plush spaces are redolent of the global heyday of empire, a world that looks out at unbounded oceans, inward at the fancies of stay-at-homes. Then back to China again, like an international traveller in the bygone days of international travel. Word from the East keeps filtering through. We stroll cylindrical rooms of Yangzhou, whether zoom room or tunnel vision best not to guess, too quickly forgetting how the ancestors burnt the libraries to eradicate an enemy’s documented memory. Outwesting the West has resulted in the import of geometric extravagance, a groove tube of bending burden bordering on the baroque. Oxford is not for burning, though the selection process means documented memory holds on to what is Oxford, and what Oxford does not collect. Excludes is another word. What is not Oxford? A world without Beautiful Libraries. Volume up on bubble music. Trinity College Dublin, likewise, is a tall order. We climb together with the stack worker into the leather-bound reaches of further learning. Yet at TCD, as elsewhere, the real action happens in the modern library of high tech and nearing deadlines. While still, its most used book is under glass in a room next door. We imagine having the secure job of page-turner for the Book of Kells, curving over the curves each morning. Not that anyone will be seen in these Irish libraries this month. Except the very rare librarian, and the rare cleaner. The rarest sight to be enjoyed today is not the illuminated manuscripts, it’s the people. Our film shows the well-dressed shadows of visitors past, where today the books remain as they stand, unopened. Now closed until further notice. Music soothes our fears. Our frames are not allowed through the front door. Our bodies, so frequently peas in a pod as we study for examinations under a library’s green shades, must now enjoy in glorious self-isolation the glorious storeys of the George Peabody in Baltimore. What an incredible frame the Peabody has, big as only America cares to be big. Spare no expense, the collection silently says. When, all too quickly, frothy music, we are taken into the Grimm of Berlin. The idea of a university library named after the Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, gives pause for thought. One would not want to lose oneself forever in the Hansel and Gretel Research Room. Where are all of these students of life now, self-isolating in the black forest of the world. Thence Stuttgart, a library for modern dreamers who don’t give a hang for a chandelier. Stuttgart knows what it’s doing in this regard. Of course it does, but we do like a bit of flourish. It is smooth lines, flat surfaces, and metal railings, all the better to pick up invisible microbes. The Grimms would have a tale to tell. Some of the newest libraries on our visual vacation, those in China and Germany, remind us that not only are libraries not going away due to digital, they are being built bigger and better for the reading future. Digital and print, both are the future, like the reopening of the front door. Some of us have enjoyed a personal tour of what happens next, the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague, the fabulous collection of the very austere Premonstratensians. Surely, we think, this is one of the most wondrous interiors we will see in a month of Sundays. But is it really a working collection, or very much a showpiece? And who will use it now, now Prague and the world in general has gone into monastic shutdown? We travel by handheld Golem-13 camera across  broad floors, along its ornate shelves and across twirls of roof, but no closer. More secure by a long shot is the elevator of the public library in Zurich. The floors go by with pinpoint timing. It is the twentieth century’s gift of form and function, rising to the occasion then taking us down again with a satisfying silent landing. Even the champagne music seems to be sobering up, or is it that we have plateaued? Bnf Richelieu Paris graces the eye, the idealist nineteenth century’s dream of rows of polished tables and slants of sunlight where Parisians could read to themselves at industrial scale levels. A couple of these vacation libraries would not have got a building permit in Australia, the Bibliothèque Nationale one of them.  It’s the high high shelving, don’t you know? Beautiful and deadly. Paris should have known better. We don’t want people falling off ladders and killing themselves. But before that can happen we are suddenly dropped into the Chetham in Manchester. Our interest is piqued by all those clinking chains attaching book to ledge, those darkly varnished cases in passage after passage. By remote chance, at the end of our holidays we will visit its website. Chetham's is the oldest public library in England, or in fact the English-speaking world. Theology abounds here, as it should. However, the fact that we cannot borrow books doesn't make it much of a public library, we might say. What they mean is it's not a private library because it was owned by Chetham. Logic is not called for under these circumstances. It says that the first task facing Humphrey Chetham’s governors was to purchase the medieval College House, which, after many years of neglect, was in a poor state. Our opinion of Puritans is not improved by the news that during the Civil War it had been used as a prison and arsenal, and it was remarked that ‘the towne swine make there abode bothe in the yards and house’. Restoration began in 1653 and seems to have gone on ever since, though it's mainly a cultural centre and charity. Some of us have never been happy about chained books, but understandable if it’s the only copy in existence of a certain scrutable folio. Not that we can touch any of these rare books this month, or secrete one in our handbag. And with this in mind, our own positive vacation attitude is temporarily restored by a rush tour of the Duchess Anna Amalia in Weimar. Truly, it’s all very grand, but by this stage while we might envy those who waltz about such decorative compartments, who sprint through texts beneath spritzy canopies, only marble heads stare blankly into space this month. Too, we are tiring of all the holiday overload. What, not another library? Mum, I want to go to the circus. Not that we can go to the circus this month, nor any other month in the foreseeable, nor any of the rococo libraries in existence. It’s either back to our hotel room no questions asked, or perhaps rest up in an abbey. Waldsassen Abbey is an idea and it has a library. Those monks knew how to pass the time. Prayer and books and gardening, books and sleep and prayer, gardening and prayer and refectory. Whether we could do that for a whole lifetime is impossible to say, maybe it’s a temperament thing, but there’s no time to decide because the champagne music transports us to, Mum no please! not another abbey library living in a bubble like a stream of consciousness that is all book and no substance. Yes, dear, Admont Abbey Austria, to be precise, and though the walls are piled high with pink and azure, all very lovely dovely, and that’s before we get to the books in whitest vellum, it’s time for us to weave rapidly time running out toward a splendiferous cork-popping exit.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Walt Whitman THE TRANSCENDENT SOUL (1) Susan Southall

The plan for Spiritual Reading Group in March was that Susan Southall would introduce us to the poetry of the American poet Walt Whitman. Events have overtaken us. The Group will reconvene at a time when the Carmelite Library re-opens. For now though, here is Susan’s paper. The selected poems for reading are also posted on this blog.

Walt Whitman was the great, expansive poet of American democracy, a transformative literary innovator, and one of the most significant figures in American literature. He gives  answer to  Emerson’s query: can the magnificent project, the revival of an ancient ideal of democracy in their own time, survive and succeed? This is a question true to our own days, when Civil War is again the rhetoric of a divided nation.

When Whitman was born in Long Island, New York in 1819, the United States government, constitution, congress and president had been in existence for only 30 years. Whitman came from a stable background of Dutch and English New Yorkers in an agrarian society he would look back to with nostalgia. For while the acute difficulty of forming a nation at all, between the original 13 confederating states, would carry a legacy leading to Civil War and lasting to the present day, Whitman’s America was one of immense and unrelenting change. Much like today.

Whitman saw changes from sail to steam, horse-drawn carts to railways, letters that took weeks to arrive to telegrams, new financial systems (including crashes), new confrontations. A wave of feminism began in the 1840’s and Whitman was a strong supporter of equality between men and women. We have mobile phones; they had photography, and photography was an important influence on how Whitman described the world. “In these Leaves every thing is literally photographed. Nothing is poeticized,” he said.[i] We have Artificial Intelligence, a growing juggernaut; they had the Industrial Revolution. We have climate change; they had Darwin, and in both cases religious conservatives quoted the Bible and despised the science. We have the New Age: the early 19th century had a plethora of new religious and spiritual movements. Some of them influenced Whitman: spiritualism, Swedenborgianism, Harmonalism.

Each of the thirteen colonies making up the United States had its founding religion. Massachusetts and Connecticut were Puritan theocracies. Maryland settled Catholics, Pennsylvania Quakers, the Carolinas Anglicans. Some colonies were founded on a principle of religious toleration, notably Rhode Island, but there was by the time of the Constitutional Convention an openness to the separation of church and state. What made the Union difficult was not religion: it was economics: i.e. slavery.

“The paradox of liberty versus slavery at the nation’s birth is no paradox at all. Liberty was the right to own property. Slaves were property. Liberty for slaveowners meant slavery for slaves. Viewed from the slaveowner’s perspective, liberty was slavery. It was made much easier by … believing something that resonated with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: those who were enslaved were those who were naturally inferior.”[ii] More recently, the devout Dutch Reformed who ran apartheid in South Africa believed the same.

Whitman had an almost religious devotion to the Union, but he was not an abolitionist. Politically he was a Free Soiler: he opposed the expansion of slavery into new Western territories on behalf of free white labour, maybe even free black labour, those who could not compete with unpaid slaves. He mentions slaves occasionally in his lists of the people and occupations making up the democracy; he disapproved of abolitionists who held demonstrations in New York with similar disruptions to Occupy and Extinction Rebellion today. Whether he was or was not a white supremacist, he thought the nation should be developed by the whites, which does not necessarily include the Irish, or immigrants in general.

This is the landscape of the Civil War.

Whitman’s most famous book is Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems which went through eight editions, with dates from 1855 to 1882. He developed a free verse that owes much to Shakespeare and the King James Bible. (Some of Whitman reminds me of Ecclesiastes). Whitman said that Leaves of Grass had a deeply religious purpose: “…the religious and philosophical influences on Leaves of Grass were the products of a specific moment, the 1850s, when several radical religious and philosophical influences came together.”[iii]

“He instinctively accepted deism’s centrality to American thought. It was, after all, the free thought of Jefferson, Franklin, and others that made toleration of all religions a specifically American phenomenon… Free thought also made him responsive to… Quakerism… Quakerism had more appeal to Whitman than deism because it made allowance for ecstasy and intuition, which the rationalistic deism did not…There was a special democratic emphasis to the Quaker mode of oratory, which carried the Protestant notion of the priesthood of all believers to a radical extreme.” [iv] He accepted all religions, but “it was particularly hard for him to have faith in the churches at a time when he believed rising capitalism was tainting religion. Like other reformers of the day, he was upset by the intermingling of money and religion in America.” [v] That sounds familiar too.

            Whitman, who was, at various times, a journalist, a printer, and a publisher, was in a position to observe the decadent state of American politics. “The 1850s was… a decade of unprecedented political corruption, a time of vote-buying, wire-pulling, graft, and patronage at all levels of state and national government. Class divisions were growing at an alarming rate. Dislocations created by the market economy widened the gap between rich and poor.”[vi]Some of the figures in Whitman’s notebooks seem familiar:  from “…limber-tongued lawyers, very fluent but empty, feeble old men, professional politicians, dandies, dyspeptics…” to “…robbers, pimps… malignants, conspirators, murderers…infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers…body-snatchers…monte-dealers, duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men…gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money…”[vii] These qualities can still be noted in politics.

Whitman, however, believed in the power of poetry to moderate and unite the nation. “He was confronted with what he saw as extremists on both sides: slaveholders cursing the government for threatening to interfere with slavery extension; abolitionists cursing the government and the Constitution for permitting slavery. It began to dawn on him that the greatest balancing agent could be poetry — poetry that took both sides while at the same time releasing the stream of curses.”[viii] The first, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass …”was close to…antislavery activists of the fifties who were emphasizing the humanity of African-Americans…” for this reason African-American readers have often felt close to Whitman, from Sojourner Truth to Langston Hughes and June Jordan, who said, “I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman.”[ix]

            The Civil War produced millions of casualties. When Whitman went into the hospitals to look for his wounded brother, he was appalled at the suffering. Lister’s discoveries in antisepsis were not published until 1867. The entire war passed without an understanding of sanitation. Typhoid, malaria, and diarrhea spread in camps and hospitals, overcrowded and attended by undertrained doctors who still believed in miasmas, night air, and lack of nerve force among the medieval obscurities behind disease. Hands were not washed. Amputations took place in stables, resulting in many tetanus deaths. There were “more than four hundred thousand wounded and six million sick in the Union Army during the four years of war.”[x] Whitman found his place in the war, “serving the Union cause as wholeheartedly as… any other frontline soldier. From December 1862 until well after the war was over, he personally visited tens of thousands of hurt, lonely, and scared young men in the hospitals in and around Washington, bringing them the ineffable but not inconsiderable gift of his magnetic, consoling presence… Whitman entered the rank, fever-ridden hospitals…like a breath of fresh air, bringing with him a knapsack full of humble but much-appreciated gifts: fruit candy, clothing, tobacco, books, magazines, pencils and paper. His long white beard, wine-colored suit, and bulging bag of presents gave him a decided resemblance to Santa Claus… (Unlike the official chaplains of the Sanitary Commission) he gave no lectures, handed out no tracts, and prayed no prayers for the immortal souls of white-faced boys writhing on their beds. Instead, he simply sat and listened…He ended the war as ‘The Good Gray Poet’ a beloved, almost mystical figure who personally embodied for millions of Americans a democratic ideal of sharing and brotherhood.”[xi] One wounded officer wrote, “A wounded soldier don’t like to be reminded of his God more than twenty times a day. Walt Whitman didn’t bring any tracts or Bibles, he didn’t ask if you loved the Lord, and didn’t seem to care whether you did or not.”[xii]

            Transcendence is an “ameliorating strategy” in Whitman’s poetry, the belief that “everything physical has a spiritual counterpart”…” he is also the spiritualist who proclaims immortality, the progressive scientist who knows God has ferried his cradle for ages, and the Harmonialist who has a loverlike intimacy with nature and who revels in the senses…just as mesmeric healers and trance poets felt the power to soar beyond physical reality, so he has an ‘elemental’ capacity for ‘whirling and whirling’ beyond pain and suffering. [xiii]

Whitman sat by many death-beds during the Civil War. As Mark Van Doren asserts, “Heavenly death — it is a common phrase on Whitman’s lips, and he means it literally. For it is through death that he sees, as he believes, into the heart of creation — where of course life also is, as sister and bride. At the center of the universe life and death lie down together. Any great love plunges to this point in its career, as any great death — like that of Lincoln — becomes a carol announcing the union. Whitman is mystically serious about all this, which is why, together with the reason that he is already a magnificent poet, he reaches in his best poems the height that he does.”[xiv]

            “As impressive as Lincoln was in life, it was his death that represented for Whitman the transcendent, crucial moment in America’s cultural life…the culminating moment in history.”[xv] Seven million people saw his funeral train on its journey, another four and a half million at its destination in Springfield. Whitman felt the war had purified the nation, but at great cost, the cost of the lives of its sons, both North and South. His great elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Blooms” has the mythic force of the mighty laments for Celtic and Anglo-Saxon fallen kings: one of the ancient dignities of poetry.

[i] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, p. 281.
[ii] Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2016), p. 264.
[iii] David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Random House, 1996), p. 35
[iv] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, pp. 37-38.
[v] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, p. 237.
[vi] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, p. 112.
[vii] Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University, 2000), p. 16.
[viii] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, p. 119.
[ix] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, pp. 147-148.
[x] Morris, The Better Angel, p. 93.
[xi] Morris, The Better Angel, p. 6.
[xii] Morris, The Better Angel, p.109.
[xiii] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, pp. 33-334.
[xiv] Mark Van Doren, introduction to The Portable Walt Whitman (New York: Penguin, 1974), p.xxii.
[xv] Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America, p. 440.